It's been more than six months since a stunned Gov. Andrew Cuomo viewed the remains of the Keene Volunteer Fire Department following Tropical Storm Irene. Now the Keene Fire District is close to buying property for a new fire station.
The total cost to purchase land and build the station could be between $2.1 million and $2.2 million, although officials hope to come in considerably less than that.
Alan Carey, director of the Keene Fire Board of Commissioners, told the Enterprise that a permissive referendum on the proposed purchase of the Mountain Manor, on state Route 73 in the hamlet of Keene, will be held April 24 at the Keene Community Center.
The Mountain Manor on state Route 73 in the town of Keene could be the new home of the Keene Volunteer Fire Department.
(Photo — Martha Allen)
The old Keene firehouse was destroyed when Gulf Brook rose up in a raging flood during Tropical Storm Irene Aug. 28, 2011. It is seen here the next day, Aug. 29.
(Photo — Martha Allen)
Carey said fire officials looked at nine sites that were available. The Mountain Manor, located across from Stewart's Shop, was the most expensive piece of property but also the best, he said.
"And by far, this site that we picked, other than the price, was the best suited to our needs," Carey said. "It was by far the best for us as far as being high and dry, being accessible during any flooding. Some of the (sites) we looked at would possibly cut us off by flood waters."
Officials also considered things like traffic volume while selecting the new site. Carey said it's safer for all parties when a fire station is located on a straight section of road; it gives firefighters and motorists a clear line of vision during an emergency, he said.
Carey got involved with plans for the new station just days after heavy rains from Irene caused Gulf Brook to spills its banks, wiping out most of structure. During those early planning stages, fire officials began discussions with Hueber Breuer, a Syracuse-based construction firm that specializes in overseeing the building of new fire and rescue buildings.
Carey said Hueber Breuer has helped the fire department deal with insurance companies as well as prepare for the permissive referendum and bidding process - "everything from soup to nuts."
The fire district makes up about 50 percent of the town of Keene, which also includes the hamlet of Keene Valley, which has its own fire department. Registered voters in the Keene district will have the final say on whether to move forward with the purchase.
Carey said Pacheco Ross Architects of Voorheesville has been selected to design the new station. He said the firm is well versed in Federal Emergency Management Agency rules and regulations.
The Mountain Manor is owned by Linda LaBarge and is listed for sale at $399,000. Carey said the fire district hopes to purchase it for $300,000.
LaBarge told the Enterprise that her late husband David purchased the property in the late 1970s. It currently has five cabin rentals and totals 1.9 acres. Labarge said that when Irene tore through, she was high and dry.
"No water, no nothing," she said.
LaBarge said she is trying to give the fire district the best deal possible.
"It's my taxpayer money, too," she said.
LaBarge said she plans to stay in Keene if voters approve the purchase.
"I love it down here," she said.
Carey said he hopes a portion of the project will be covered by FEMA.
"We have applied to FEMA for what we deemed an unmet need, over and above insurance settlements, cash on hand, donations, etc.," he said. "Hopefully we're going to get a good portion of what we applied for. If we receive 50, 60, 70 percent of what we applied for, we're in good shape."
Town Supervisor Bill Ferebee said FEMA needs to be more clear about whether the fire district will receive federal funds.
"They're saying, 'Yes, you should,' but nobody will say, 'Yes, you're going to,' and that's my concern," he said. "Because they're looking for a million dollars or so from FEMA, and the department really can't move forward until they get that for sure answer. If FEMA said, 'Yes, you're going to get it, but it's going to be a year from now,' that's fine."
Ferebee said he likes the site for the new building, and the design.
"They're trying to build for the future," he said. "I know included in their building is a meeting room, and of course a kitchen, which from the Irene storm, us trying to feed and house 60 National Guardsmen, I can see where we need that kind of location."
Construction of the new fire station could begin in mid to late May, but Carey said the start date depends on what happens with the permissive referendum.
Carey said a permissive referendum is necessary whenever the fire district exceeds its spending limitation. The referendum states the district wants to bond for up to $2.3 million; Carey stressed that there's no way the district would actually borrow that much money.
The referendum asks permission for three things:
-Permission to spend the money that's needed to purchase land
-To establish a new capital fund for building and land purchase
-To transfer funds from an existing capital fund for equipment into a new capital fund.
With anticipated funds from insurance settlements and FEMA, Carey said the board of fire commissioners is committed to not bonding for long-term debt of more than half a million dollars. If that happens, Carey said the money can be paid back within 20 years without raising taxes in the fire district.
"We're committed to that, promised that to the people, and what we need to do is get that word out before the referendum comes due so they don't look at that and say, 'Well jeez, they're going to borrow $2.3 million; that's going to cost us a lot of money,'" he said. "That's not the case."
Carey said the six-month process for building the new station has been unbelievably frustrating, but he's happy with the progress that's been made.
"We're taking - although they're only baby steps - they're all forward," he said. "And we felt that if we couldn't get a start on the building by possibly mid-June at the latest, that we would not have a roof on the structure for winter. And that would end up costing us a lot more money in the long run."